I left India many years ago to live in Britain but having said that I have always felt deeply connected to her. I was born and raised in Madras (now Chennai) and like many Indians living abroad would attest; one feels tethered to her in ways that transcend culture or habits.
I invariably gravitate to news on India and Indians as a default, despite 12 years of living away my Facebook and Twitter are overwhelmed with stories about India (this is of course a result of the accounts I follow) I’ve always kept loose track of the big Bollywood releases, and have never been successful at adapting my palette to anything away from desi food. Then of course it is hard to ignore Indian politics no matter where you live in the world, the news finds a way to your timeline or twitter feed. I don’t think this has anything to do with patriotism, it is a default. It is the inability to shake away some aspects which are hard-wired. If you lived in India long enough to soak in her distinctive and unique qualities, you are tethered for life.
If someone asked me to describe what it means to be Indian; I would say we come in all colours, shapes and sizes, between the length and breadth of India there are uncountably many dialects spoken, there are groups, sub-groups and sub-sub-groups people like to organise themselves into. These could be religions, languages or other clustering factors. We don’t dress the same, speak the same or even think the same way. It is quite possible to find two Indians who share nothing in common except the country they belong to. This lack of tidiness has never been a cause of dismay but the very essence, the very description of India, her distinguishing trait in the world.
It’s what makes us better than our neighbours. To try and mask over this amazingly messy, glorious, mixture would be a travesty and something that needs to be safeguarded against. This strong heterogeneity has no influence on how people interact at a micro-level. Within the country people migrate to states they didn’t hail from and find ways of flourishing, magically. Hence, a really succinct definition of being Indian would be ‘being liberal’.
It were these — liberalism and secularism, which were the founding principles of the state of India. By and large Indians everywhere in urban and rural areas have lived by and embrace these values.
In the India I grew up in, it was not important whether you were a temple or a church goer but if you can help someone make headway. There was no time or room to focus on subjects inconsequential to ones prosperity. In a country like India, to prosper is the underscoring dominating aspiration.
Have things changed in today’s India?
Here is my take: While the mainstream news will tell you otherwise, (and frankly enough virtual and physical ink has been spilt on discussing the rise of Hindu nationalism post 2019 national elections) I don’t think the government in the world’s largest and perhaps most untamed democracy can so easily sweep through and change the way people fundamentally behave. While it is important to fight illiberalism, barbarism and racism we cannot be so consumed by dissent that we forget to focus on issues of material significance and our place in the world as a growing superpower. For India, the ruling government or its leanings have always been extraneous. The individuals and the institutions have mattered much more.
As a country we have several pressing matters at hand, we are trying to make our mark alongside China as one of the world’s largest economies. We need to clean up our cities and preserve our monuments, we need to educate more people and give jobs to a lot more. We need to make things better for millions of farmers. We need to market our culture, food, art, literature in an increasingly globalising world. We need to make better films, write better books, do better science and retain our brilliant minds.
We need to stay relevant. We need to sell more to the world so we can be more prosperous. With over a billion people in tow we cannot afford to lose this race, but we will if we continue to squabble over matters of little material significance.
There is so much we can already offer to the world and so much more to work towards. This is both our burden and our duty. Let’s not get distracted.